Back to the Retro-Future

It’s important for an artist or a filmmaker to know who their influences are. You should remember who you’ve stolen from, it’s a matter of respect. For me one of the earliest influences was probably the work of Maurice Noble, though I wouldn’t have known it at the time.

When you’re a kid, you just digest stimulus. You take all the input – no filter (well, maybe not the broccoli) and just keep filling up that mostly empty brain-pan. But gradually you begin to react (not much for the green beans either…) and develop preferences. You learn that you respond to certain things more than others, and then, if you’re an art kid anyway, you start to notice the names associated with those things. And so it was this way that I came to associate the name of Maurice Noble with a certain style of Warner Brothers cartoons, although a few were made by people copying (or at least influenced by) his style.

It is through Maurice Noble that I would meet Salvador Dali. Not directly of course, but certainly the landscapes and spaces he designed in those cartoons mentally laid the road map for my appreciation of Dali and other surrealists. And again, it is only with the hindsight of middle age that I realize they were contemporaries, products of the same world influences and artistic trends. But it was Noble’s mad spaces that I would meet first, on Saturday mornings and after school weekdays, with no earthly idea some of these were from the pre-War era.


-Maurice Noble’s design work on a future city is echoed in Albert Whitlock, Jr.’s matte painting of Emeniar 7

I recently acquired a copy of The Noble Approach, a volume derived from the late artist’s notes for young animation designers and layout artists. I’ve only had time to thumb through it but seeing those images again sparked my thinking. I wouldn’t fully encounter the surrealists for some years, and in the meantime, these sometimes “unhinged” treatments of color and perspective were leading me to comic books by Kirby and Steranko, whose treatments were equally unreal at times. It opened me up. Made me look at image as something other than simply illustrative “truth”. His work encouraged my interest in the creative.

I got to looking at these designs and found in them an odd familiarity. While he was by no means the only artist working in such a way, Mr. Noble’s imagery has certainly had a profound affect on what is now being called the “retro-future”.


-The night view of Starbase 11 from the 23rd Century of Star Trek would have been familiar to Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century.

That is, for a brief period in the 20th century we envisioned a world of shining spires, domed cities, and glassine walkways above pristine parklands, held there by some unknown miracle of engineering because this was the future! 

As we move forward into the 21st century, while there are shining spires, our cities don’t have domes, our parks, sadly, are trod underfoot, and there’s no sign of my flying car anywhere. Okay, well, at least we’re not living in the dystopian wastelands of post-optimistic writers and artists, but we can now wistfully look back on the “olden days” when our naivete never considered that our robot maid would try to kill us just for being human.


-The complimentary colors from What’s Opera, Doc? are found in Whitlock’s alien spires from the other end of Starbase 11.

I miss those days. For a lot of reasons. But mainly because of that loss of optimism.

Yes, humanity is a wacky, greedy, self-destructive virus on the face of the earth. We chew through resources accumulating stuff which ultimately our mortality makes impossible to hold. We build the greatest open repository of information in the history of our race and use it to constantly argue about the parts of that information we don’t believe in. So why wouldn’t I be nostalgic for the world of crystalline pedways and terribly impractical architecture?

Our future was supposed to be disease-free, poverty-free, hunger-free, war-free, and entirely self-cleaning. It was supposed to be polycultural to the extent that it didn’t matter that it was polycultural. Think about that a minute. Digest it. Not, “hey, we’ve got diversity here” but “hey, we don’t care because everyone is included anyway”. Yes, the retro-future was conceived by utopian idiots who clearly didn’t realize that the problems are just more complicated than that.

Or are they? Is it just that we’ve gotten used to that answer? Or have we gotten lazy?

A lot of people my age are spending their time in the past. We’re dissatisfied with everything from politics to television programs to the color of the floor at the grocery store. We lament the loss of “the good old days” when we could believe in the retro-future without the constant reminder that the present sucked pretty badly and improving it was going to take work.

And it will take work.  It has, in fact, taken a lot of work. In my lifetime, we’ve actually cleaned up the air and the water and the land. Certainly not enough, but trust me it’s way better than it was in the 60s and 70s. But we’ve got a long way to go, and a lot of that is on you. I’ll be honest, I’ve got maybe another half century left if I’m real lucky and Dr. McCoy invents a number of magic pills. Then I’m out of here.

So choose wisely. As they say, the future is where you’ll spend the rest of your life. It’s up to you to make it a retro one.


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